Lifehacks: 8 investigative reporting tricks that every entrepreneur should use

Being an entrepreneur is a lot like my former existence as an investigative reporter, I’ve found. Basically, you’re up every single day against people with a lot more money, time and protective layering around them than you. So it’s up to you to be scrappy, inventive and tenacious. Here’s some tricks that I used in my days as a journalist that still serve me very well today:

1. Negotiate everything

If someone tells you something is not negotiable, he or she is already negotiating. Gear up and negotiate back. Commissions, server costs, consultancy costs, per hour fees, bandwidth costs, software costs, marketing costs, conference ticket prices and contracts: they are all negotiable. In fact, everything is negotiable. Hotel prices (is breakfast included? how about a special rate just this once?), restaurants that are “fully booked”, but also procurement departments. Get over the feeling that you will be regarded as cheap, or impolite, or a jerk – people usually don’t care all that much about you. Negotiating is not “cheap”, it’s fun and useful, and it can save you thousands of euros.

2. Ask favors

The same goes for asking a favor. You’re a startup: you need favors. Without some people giving you a break, you just won’t make it. Swallow your pride and say: can you do me a favor? Journalists are nowhere without favors: they usually call people that are dealing with some sort of crisis.

And it’s their job to make sure that these people – most of whom they’ve never met – trusts them enough to drop everything and talk to them on the phone. Getting a favor from somebody is powerful in two different ways: first, you get the benefit of a favor. But second, research also shows that people who help you are more likely to help you a second time. Which is way you should do this:

3. When somebody does you a favor, immediately ask for a second favor

This is actually second nature to me from my days as a reporter. When you finally have people where you want them (doing you a favor), you should immediately follow up to ask for another favor. Eliciting a favor is like breaking a dam. You shouldn’t plaster it shut immediately afterwards by saying thank you, thank you, sorry for the trouble. Instead, say: “Great. Now if you could just do another thing for me…”

A good excercise to discover the power of the second favor is this: go ask for directions in the street. Then, when people told you where to go, ask if they can also buy you coffee. Try it. It’s wonderfully liberating. The best way is to use the word “because”.

Research shows that just by using the word “because”, you increase your chances of getting the favor by a factor three. The experiment they did was having people ask if they could cut the line. Saying: “Can I cut the line” was generally not successful. But when the test subjects asked “Can I cut the line because I’d like to go first” on the other hand was successful about half the time. The information in both sentences is exactly the same. So say: “Can you also buy me coffee, because I’d really like some coffee“.

This is what being a reporter is: you get people to give you information that they don’t want to give. Then, you ask them to send the e-mails proving this information. Then, you ask them to give up their anonymity. Then, you confront their boss with the e-mails they forwarded you. Next, you put them on the front page. It’s death by favors. As an entrepreneur, you’re in exactly the same position.

4. Build a golden bridge: provide an exit

This is advice from Sun Tzu: “build a golden bridge for your enemy”. You must never, ever back people into a corner that they can’t get out of. Always make sure that when you have a difference of opinion, there is a face saving way for the other party to retreat from its position. Don’t gloat when they do retreat. It might feel good, but it’s not a winning strategy in the long term.

Getting them out of their initial position is only half the battle – you also want them to give you something in the end, and that’s what you should concentrate on. Not the ego boost. You should continue your conversation matter of factly and try to reach your goals (the scoop in the case of a reporter, a signed deal when you’re an entrepreneur).

5. Sell, sell, sell

I managed to secure interviews for Whiteboard with Martin Varsavsky (who is probably a billionnaire and has a handful of companies to run, a few of them publicly listed) and Guillaume Lautour (VC managing 800 million in funds) before so much as a single pixel of Whiteboard was online (I think I didn’t even have a name for the project back then). I love hustling like that. Somebody recently told me: ‘you should be in sales’. Guess what: I AM in sales.

Being a journalist is about selling yourself: showing confidence, building a deep connection to sources in the shortest possible time – from the moment they pick up the phone, you have about 30 seconds to “hook” them. My personal hero David Simon writes about homicide detectives that “they are in the business of selling long prison sentences to a population that has no need for long prison sentences“.

For me, that quote has always been an inspiration. If those detectives can make that kind of sale, why shouldn’t I be able to sell an interview?

6. Learn how to say “no”

Favors are a currency, and generally, you should return favors. Unfortunately, sometimes you just honestly can’t return the favor. Here too, you should build a golden bridge – for yourself.

You must learn to convincingly tell people “no”. Because if you’re not convincing, they will think you’re negotiating and push you – this is dangerous for your relationship. Because when they discover that your no is a definitive no and not a negotiation tactic, they will feel like they lost face – like somehow you tricked them into thinking you were negotiating, when you really weren’t. Saying no gracefully but firmly is a very important skill.

7. Be honest

Even though as a starting entrepreneur, you might have the feeling that the world is big, it is not. In “Six Degrees”, a groundbreaking work about human networks, it’s made explicitly clear that our world is a “small world”. People generally think that the world is big, the author writes, because they can’t see beyond their own relatively limited network. If you could stand on your own shoulders to see beyond your own network, you would notice how small the world really is. This means that you can’t afford to be dishonest. Ever.

You can hustle, and try to outsmart and outthink the other guys, but you can’t lie or cheat, because your reputation will suffer. I’ve heard quite a few times from sources that they had ‘done their homework’ on me – calling colleagues at rivalling newspapers or magazines.

Every industry has a few super networkers who know everybody. They make it their job to know everybody – and they’re the stock exchange for reputations. Rest assured that people do call them to ask how your stock is doing lately. If you get caught cheating, word will get around, and you’re a zombie: you’re dead, but you don’t know it.

8. When you eat from the garbage container, nobody can hurt you

One last thing I learned. I once wrote an article about people who go dumpster diving – either because they can’t pay for food or because they want to make a stand against food waste. I’m usually very particular about food. But that day, I was rummaging in a slime, grime and mould covered dumpster with a vengeance. I took minced meat out of it, that was well past its sell date and surrounded by unsellable chickens that were blueish green. And I made a bolognaise sauce from that meat and ate it – and followed it up with some oranges that were next to the chicken. Lovely meal.

As I walked home with my dumpster diving buddy for the day, I thought: well, there’s not much anyone can do to me now. It was a realisation that even if I had nothing left – I could still survive by going dumpster diving. It was a deeply powerful emotion. My partner for the day said: it’s the thrill of the hunt you’re feeling.

And he said: It’s like the dogs.

He said his dogs would bark at other dogs who tried to steal their food, but in the end – when the other dog managed to steal it, they would respect that. What we were feeling, he said, was the feeling of being that dog who just takes the food, despite the barking. 

Whiteboard isn’t profitable by a long shot – not even ramen profitable. But somewhere, there’s this same feeling running in my veins: that satisfying, low, humming sound of being self reliant.

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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